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Springfield Institute aims to unite and inform

Date: 7/27/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD - "All of Western Massachusetts is dying for a vital metropolitan hub in Springfield," Aron Goldman, the executive director of the newly formed Springfield Institute, said.

The Springfield Institute, a "think tank" dedicating itself to the improvement of the city, conducted its first community meeting last Wednesday. The hour-long presentation on using data to drive social and political change was presented at the South End Community Center. About 80 people attended the event.

Goldman told Reminder Publications the goal of the organization is to provide technical assistance and capacity building to neighborhood and grass roots groups in the city.

He said the newly formed non-profit came out of discussion last October and November "at the peak of the Obama campaign." Goldman said the campaign created a "new sense of hope" for urban transformation.

With the dissolution of the Finance Control Board, Goldman said the time was right to emphasize the need for public participation in municipal government.

"This is a perfect historical moment," he said.

Goldman is a public policy consultant who started working in Springfield in 2005 with the North End Coalition. His experience was that many people in the city are working on projects to better their neighborhoods, but are unaware of each other.

"I wanted them to get off their little boxes and have more interchange between neighborhoods as a way to help," Goldman explained.

He called the city's neighborhood councils as having a significant stake in decision-making and planning and part of the Institute's work is provide services to "complement the work they are already doing."

The organization has offices at 32-34 Hampden St. and has a multi-author blog at

At the presentation last week, participants listened to Charlotte Kahn, the director of the Boston Indicators Project.

"Indicators are data points that have special meaning for you," she explained.

She added her group "democratizes data" by collecting statistical information and then using it to make impact on specific public issues and concerns.

Paul Foster, the director of the city's Citistat and 311 programs, spoke about how the Citistat program uses statistical information to improve the performance and efficiency of municipal departments. He said the 311 service is designed to address the questions and problems posed by Springfield residents.

Members of the audience, though, asked how the Citistat information - which is used primarily for internal management decisions - could be disseminated to the general public to be used. Foster said he would provide data to the Springfield Institute.

Even though a service such as 311 exists, there are still problems in getting answers from City Hall, according to Ruby Maddox-Fisher of the Gardening in the Community program.

Maddox-Fisher explained the organization, which used to use a city-owned vacant lot on Central Street for its urban gardening program, was told the city intended to use the property for development in 2007. It has since remained vacant and now is used for illegal dumping, she said.

Maddox-Fisher said the organization wanted to know how to open a dialogue with the city.

"We don't know who to talk to," Maddox-Fisher said.

Foster said this issue is the sort he likes to hear about and said he is trying to create a "culture shift" in city government.

Although some members of the audience questioned exactly what was the point of the presentation - noting the noon-time scheduling of the event prevented many working residents from attending - Julius Ford of the Western Massachusetts Center for Healthy Communities said the ultimate purpose is to create leverage community members can use for change.